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The World | DEBATE ON IRAQ

Backing on Iraq? Let's Make a Deal

Allies: Behind-the-scenes talks get underway to see which inducements might sway nations.

September 13, 2002|PAUL RICHTER and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — After struggling for months to talk other nations into helping oust Saddam Hussein, President Bush is beginning to use terms they might find easier to understand: cash, weapons, business deals and favors.

Bush's speech Thursday at the United Nations marked the start of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations to see what inducements will help convert countries that so far have been balking, at least publicly, at joining the anti-Hussein campaign.

U.S. officials expect the Turks to ask for weapons and debt relief, the Russians and French for access to Iraqi oilfield business, the Qataris for cash to build an air base, and the Jordanians for guarantees of oil and trade. Officials expect many other countries to join the horse trading, and predict that they won't be shy.

"Countries in the Middle East take the bazaari approach," said Danielle Pletka, a former Senate aide who now works at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. "Once they know we want to buy ... the sky's the limit."

Said a senior congressional aide, "This is a great time to step forward and get something you want from the United States."

The administration's initial focus will be on members of the United Nations Security Council, notably Russia, France and China, officials say. Their backing will be important soon, as the United States tries to persuade the council to enforce resolutions demanding that Iraq abandon its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

But U.S. officials will also try to persuade many other countries in the Middle East and farther afield to cooperate with a military campaign, or at least to temper their opposition.

The Pentagon still needs to win commitments from countries near Iraq for use of military bases and overflight rights.

The effort mirrors U.S. coalition-building before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and before the U.S. assault last fall on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Yet this job promises to be considerably tougher, because many nations are skeptical of the need for war, and the United States doesn't have access to the billions of dollars that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others contributed to the 1991 Persian Gulf War campaign.

"The horse trading will be much more difficult this time," predicted Edward S. Walker Jr., a former assistant secretary of State for the Middle East who is now president of the Middle East Institute.

"Part of what you've been seeing is people making a public display of opposition that will increase the price," he said.

Most countries resent any suggestion that their support can be bought. These countries insist that such deals are needed simply to reduce the economic costs and political risks of cooperation.

Turkish officials were furious last winter when former Clinton political guru Dick Morris declared on American TV that the U.S. had bought their nation's military cooperation over time by pressing for a generous International Monetary Fund loan program.

"They were outraged," said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkish expert and former specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's precisely the wrong image."

Turkey's strategic location and frequent cooperation have made it America's most important military partner in the region. The Turks contend that their participation this time would add a huge burden at a time when their country is trying to cope with crushing economic problems. They are also deeply worried that war with Iraq might lead to an independent Kurdish state that would threaten their own eastern territory.

Accordingly, they have a long wish list, including advanced weapons, relief on their $5-billion debt to the U.S. for weapons purchases, and help from the United States in ensuring that Turkey continues to receive IMF credits, U.S. officials say. Some Turkish officials have also pressed the United States to ensure that any military campaign doesn't take place in the summer, when it could damage the country's tourist industry.

Turkish officials argue that their country has lost more than $40 billion in revenue by cooperating with the United States during the Persian Gulf War and the sanctions against Iraq since.

Turkey stepped in under U.S. pressure this year to lead the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. Congress recently appropriated $228 million to cover Turkey's costs there.

Russia has made little secret of the importance that economics will have in winning its cooperation. Moscow has told U.S. officials that it wants any new Baghdad government to honor Iraq's approximately $8-billion debt to Russia. The Russians also want assurances that any successor government will allow Russian companies to keep their large share of the Iraqi oil business, and to get a piece of the business that develops in the new Iraq.

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